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It was Bozo that brought him to this. Dick Dyszel was just a fresh-faced kid, right out of college and enjoying a late-’60s rock ‘n’ roll life in Paducah, Ky., when he heard Bozo’s honking call. But, in time, he would grow out of those oversize shoes and make Washington forget the red wig and matching nose. No, by gosh, by the time he was through, they’d remember Dick Dyszel for the purple wig and the pointy ears.
From 1972 until Memorial Day 1987, Dyszel was “the face” of WDCA-TV, Channel 20, appearing onscreen any and every hour of the day: as staff announcer, as Bozo, as children’s show host Captain 20, as news anchor, or as late-night horror-movie impresario Count Gore De Vol. When he started his D.C. career, The Mod Squad and The Brady Bunch were first-run series—he left the year Max Headroom became an ABC flop. His 15-year reign matches the television longevity of Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, and Perry Como. Lassie only lasted two seasons longer.
The day Dyszel’s relentlessly cheery mug vanished from the airwaves signaled the final gasp for the era of “local” local television. In the eight years since Captain 20 walked the plank, broadcasting has come to resemble the fast-food industry. Stations now offer the same franchised Fox, Warner, Paramount, or once-big-three product in every town. Gone are the days when a TV outlet would have a built-in bowling alley—as Channel 7 did for use on Bowling for Dollars.
Dyszel was the last in a quaint and corny line of local TV hosts who helped give each station its own signature. In the ’50s, there was Captain Tugg sailing the Potomac from the studios of Channel 5, and Pick Temple singing cowboy songs and shilling for Giant Food on his Channel 9 video ranch. The early ’60s saw Ranger Hal dispensing Crusader Rabbit cartoons and friendly early morning lessons on Channel 9; on Channel 5, Bill Gormley’s afternoon Countdown Carnival presented Superman episodes and invited young viewers to hold “Carnivals for Muscular Dystrophy.” But it was not just kids’ stuff. Teens with an American Bandstand jones could wiggle to the latest AM hits on The Milt Grant Show, and later Wing Ding. For stay-at-home moms, Johnny Batchelder gave away tiny sums on Money Movie Seven. Every town big enough to have a station had some guy who put on a cheap Halloween costume and interrupted monster movies ’til dawn. Sir Graves Ghastley, the Ghost Host, and Richmond’s Bowman Body all haunted the airwaves on behalf of local sponsors.
“Every station has to have a “face’ to it. I was the face of Channel 20,” says Dyszel from the cozy comfort of his north Gaithersburg home. “If you don’t have a face, it’s difficult to promote [the station] and to reach the community; it’s impersonal.”
Now, only constantly promoted news teams face the public, and no matter how they cavort in promo spots, they have to pretend to some measure of seriousness. Gordon Peterson would not announce monkey races. Jim Vance would not be so kind in his critiques of crayon drawings in the Space Gallery. But Dyszel happily donned a bell- bottomed green jumpsuit and uttered the high-pitched greeting, “Hello there, space buddies, I’m Captain 20, welcome to the Channel 20 Club.”
“It was a series of accidents that got me here,” Dyszel contends. “I could have been selling insurance.”
Dyszel, who does bear a frightening resemblance to an Allstate agent, was not even the original candidate for Bozo. A radio station where he worked decided to start a television station. The new TV station selected someone else for the coveted clown spot. But all Bozos had to pass muster with Larry Harmon, the creator of the franchise and Bozo di tutti Bozos. Management decided to hedge its bets and include Dyszel as an understudy. Dyszel wasn’t keen on the idea.“And they said, “Let’s talk about your future here—or lack of it.’ I said, “I see your point.’ ”
Ever the good corporate citizen and pragmatist, Dyszel soon found himself a student clown, down in Big D with Big B.
In Dallas, he submerged himself in the ways of the Bozo, learning the Bozo lore, joining the Hair Club for Bozos, discovering what the nose knows. “The character was easy once you got the voice down,” he confides with professional cool.
Word gets around in the Bozo community. And a good clown is hard to find. So when a fledgling independent UHF station in Washington was looking to “spice up the broadcast,” Dyszel got a call. He arrived expecting to continue the clowning. “They never mentioned Captain 20! They got me signed on as a staff announcer and said, “Oh, by the way…,’ ” he says.
“I really did not like Captain 20 to start with,” he continues. “Because it wasn’t a program—and I was into making programs. It was a promotional character. So I doctored the character up, [adding] the purple wig. Because I was a Star Trek fan, I copied off of Spock a little bit.” Dyszel mouths the words “rip off.”
Dyszel was actually the third Captain 20, but then, Johnny Carson was the third host of The Tonight Show—and no one mentions Jack Paar much anymore. Dyszel says he took his time “evolving” the character. In the beginning, the captain was “a very alien-looking character,” he says. “When we finally wrapped it up, Captain 20 was just a normal person.” Normal, that is, if a gerbil-race referee fits that description.
But while the captain was constrained to having “responsible fun,” his late-night counterpart, Count Gore De Vol, the Dracula-esque nighttime host of Creature Feature, could—and did—run amok in the studio. His Lugosi is perhaps not as authentically poignant as Martin Landau’s award-winning turn, but the program had a similar Ed Wood charm. On sets decorated with submissions from viewers, Dyszel riffed nonstop, stringing together shameless puns and ghoulish nonsense.
The secret of bringing his undead character to life week after week? “Segment 1—fake it. Segment 2—fake it. Fake it, fake it, close, good-bye.” Dyszel would play off the crew, and maintains that “we tried to be somewhat contemporary,” recalling jokes about shake-ups in the Carter administration.
“Creature Feature had a very, very loyal following,” he says. “We probably peaked in the mid-to-late ’70s. At one point, we had 10,000 registered members of the fan club.” That’s a lot of insomniacs. “That’s nothing—we gave away 250,000 Channel 20 Club cards.”
Dyszel says his former program director described the Gore audience as “half female, half stoned.” As for those dateless guys toking up to goof on the goofing—that doesn’t really need an explanation. That so many women would tune in perhaps speaks to the enduring allure of the vampire myth. Even when it’s not Tom Cruise, even in the face of such low production values, bright lighting, a gloppy makeup job, and strained Bert Lance jokes, there’s just something about a pale toothy guy to bring out the babes.
Speaking of bloodsuckers, it was the ’80s corporate fascination with buyouts and downsizing that spelled the end of Dyszel’s dominion. Taft Broadcasting—which had purchased WDCA from former sock-hophost-turned-owner Milt Grant—sold the station to TVX Broadcasting, which, says Dyszel, had the theory that “any station could be run with only 39 people.” That apparently did not include having someone on staff who alternated accessories between a purple wig and a black cape.
The parting left the usually upbeat Dyszel somewhat bitter. “You spend 18 months watching all your friends get fired, that’s a pretty depressing situation.” When his pink slip arrived, “I just didn’t want to work for another company. So in ’86, I decided I was going to go back to my rock ‘n’ roll roots.” Dyszel unleashed his show-biz skills on a DJ service, where he finds himself “doing weddings for people who were on Bozo.”
Looking over some of the 140 hours of the captain and the count that Dyszel recently transferred to VHS, his thoughts predictably turn to resurrection. “We could bring back Creature Feature and make it a go,” Dyszel asserts. “I fully expect somewhere in this market to see a hosted horror film. Because they tend to go in cycles. Don’t forget, Graves Ghastley was off the air for several years before I came along. Now I’m off for several years and I expect someone will come along.”
Perhaps. But old captains never die, they just get transferred to another market. And so it is with our skipper. Dyszel is following his wife to her too-good-to-turn-down job in Chicago—the city that he grew up in but doesn’t particularly care for.
A half-smile plays about his semi-boyish features, but the eyes betray a hint of longing for the old days. The arm raises, the fingers splayed in a proper Vulcan salute, and he offers the official Captain 20 sign-off: “Live long and win lots of prizes.”